I’m going to try hard from now on to avoid debating whether the war with Iraq was a mistake, and to focus on the question of what should be done from here onwards.
I’ve argued for some months that the most plausible option for a stable allocation of power in Iraq is a de facto two-state solution in which the Kurds get effective autonomy and a share of the oil and the rest of Iraq gets a government which will be dominated by the Shiites. With luck, they won’t try and settle too many scores and will recognise the need to keep much of the Sunni professional elite on side. The government would be Islamist, but not a direct theocracy like Iran.
The key to all this, almost certainly, is Ayatollah Sistani. He’s not the person I’d want running my country (or more precisely acting as the eminence grise for its day-to-day rulers), but he seems like the only plausible choice who wouldn’t be an absolute disaster.
Thus far, the occupation government has done its best to preclude the emergence of a government dominated by followers of Sistani, most obviously by trying to put off elections as long as possible. The assumption has been that, given time, a secular pro-American government will emerge (Chalabhi being the favoured leader). This approach is not absolutely hopeless. Still it’s a long shot at this stage, and policy in matters of life and death shouldn’t be based on long shots.
More importantly, with the apparent blowback of Bremer’s decision to take on Sadr (the latest in a series of disastrous misjudgements on his part), there’s now a big danger that Sistani will either be outflanked by Shi’ite radicals unwilling to accept his quietist position or will feel compelled to advocate overt resistance to the Americans and particularly to the “government” to be installed on June 30, which, on current indications, will lack both legitimacy (being nominated by the Americans) and effective power (since the Americans have announced that they will maintain military control indefinitely). Something needs to be done soon to prevent this.
The urgent requirement is to dump both Bremer and Chalabi and try to find a path that can shift Sistani’s position from passive resistance to active support. This almost certainly entails a commitment to direct elections as soon as possible and an agreement that once an elected government has taken power it should have actual sovereignty, including control over its own military and the right decide what foreign forces if any, are wanted in Iraq. Ideally, the US should bind itself to this course by subordinating its command to the UN (or, failing that, some other international body such as NATO) as soon as the June 30 deadline is reached
Since I can’t see the US Administration following a course of action remotely like this except under extreme pressure, I think it’s appropriate for allied governments to drop the “we broke it, we own it” line and announce that they will not continue to support the occupation beyond June 30 in the absence of a change of policy.
I should say that I’m not claiming that this strategy is guaranteed to work at all, let alone to work well. But I can’t see a better alternative. And, of course, I didn’t support the policies that got us (the world and the Iraqis) here in the first place.
fn1. As is suggested by this report, which notes the success of secular candidates while also making it clear that a reasonably democratic interim government could have been elected using the approach proposed by Sistani and rejected by Bremer, based on using ration books for voter ID.